Pat Neal’s Alternative Universe of Salmon Restoration

An Alternative Universe (NASA)

The following letter (edited to 250 words) was sent to the PDN this morning.

It was dismaying to see the PDN give column space today to the opinions of Pat Neal and his alternative universe of salmon restoration. If I read it right, he offers nothing but criticism of what he calls “The Salmon Restoration Industry” and no actual concrete proposals other than “build and fund more hatcheries” as if this will somehow fix the slow extinction of salmon in our region. It’s so easy to ignore the decades of science, funding and citizen involvement that has brought us to this point of restoration, as well as ignoring the habitat destruction that all of us contributed to over the last 100 years. I guess it’s easy to stand on the river and pretend hatcheries will fix everything.

Virtually all scientists agree on an “All H” method of salmon restoration. This means addressing Habitat, Hydro (dams, rivers, lakes),Hatcheries and Harvest. Increase and restore habitat. Monitor and manage river flows, well densities, fix hydropower issues, or perhaps tear down dams. Increase hatchery size and type. And manage harvest to save runs. The current “salmon restoration industry” as Neal so derisively puts it, has been established *because* of the need to address all four of these issues. If it’s failing, maybe it’s from something other than ongoing support. Like needing even more funding which is substantial but nowhere near enough. Perhaps more enforcement of the regulations on the books. Well, the list of what could be done goes on and on. Easy to pick your favorite solution and say “if only”.

Hatcheries have been given far more importance in budgets over the last 10 years, including large increases proposed by the Governor in his 2019 and 2021 budgets at the behest of sports fishermen and tribes (2020/21 had cuts to everything due to the Pandemic). This despite mounting scientific evidence that hatcheries produce fish that compete for food with wild stock and reduce genetic diversity. Salmon for fishermen and not for whales or the ecosystem at large. Neal uses hatchery numbers from 1961 to supposedly show that these hatchery fish were the reasons we had such a huge amount of salmon in our waters. Given the survival rate of hatchery fish it seems absurd to draw a conclusion like that. It ignores that we had dramatically fewer people, a climate under some semblance of stability, and had yet to finish destroying virtually all old growth forests between here and Juneau. But the signs of impending doom were clear to those that wanted to look.

Neal’s use of the Dungeness River as an example is perfect. It is a perfect example of not understanding history. For my 2010 movie “Voices of the Strait” I interviewed fishermen who were on the Dungeness in the 40s, 50s and 60s and their stories all were the same: they understood but had no way to stop the unrestrained destruction of habitat that they witnessed, including the cutting of irrigation channels into the Dungeness during peak salmon return seasons, leaving millions of fish to die without spawning. They had no environmental vocabulary to describe it,as we do now. They just all said, “what a waste”.The diking of the Dungeness only helped to kill the river by accelerating the river flow and wiping out locations where the fish spawned. It was done for the benefit of farmers and homeowners, not salmon. The late Port Angeles angler Dick Goin actually documented the losses in his unpublished “Roll Call of the Lost” counts of the loss of fish on all our rivers. I have a copy if anyone is interested. He saw it in real time. The hatcheries Neal describes were created to *fix* that problem, and yet the science shows it’s not nearly enough and they are failing to produce significant results. For instance, we now know by scat analysis what Orcas actually eat and it’s not hatchery salmon but fish from the Fraser and Columbia.

Additionally, charter fishermen who I interviewed described to me in vivid detail that there were no limits on sports fishing up until the 1960s, despite their pleas to Fish & Wildlife to not waste the fish. The sports fishermen from Seattle would come out, catch 30 to 40 fish in a day and leave with a few in their coolers. The charter fishermen couldn’t hire enough kids to clean the fish so they would just throw them back in the Strait when the guys from the east side of the Sound left. They knew this was wrong but had no power to stop it and no storage for the fish. Limits on salmon were finally put in, too little too late. Now we are at place where shutting down the season appears as the only way to protect the runs from complete destruction.

Habitat restoration has been funded due to the efforts of the Tribes, the Counties, the Cities, the State, the Feds, sports and commercial fishermen and hundreds of other people who have *volunteered* their time to work on this. They sit in interminably long, boring meetings trying to come to consensus. They debate long lists of priorities. There is not the money for all of the priorities. The results of their work may take decades to show up in any significant numbers. It is like a giant puzzle with the pieces fitting together and finally, near the end, painting a bigger picture.

Pat ignores the history of international fishing fleets with gear so good they could laugh about who would catch the last fish, as one old timer who fished with them told me. Pat ignores our own logging for raw logs right here on the Peninsula to ship to Japan in the 70s & 80s, wiping out entire ecosystems of salmon runs for the quick profit of the few. He ignores that we clearcut over 90% of old growth forests until the Feds put an end to it due to documented losses of species, like salmon and birds. He ignores the enormous build out of suburbs & exurbs around Puget Sound most with little or no efforts back then to protect fish. I watched that happen myself, seeing subdivisions on the East side of Lake Washington build right down to the banks of streams and small lakes. Or ignoring 100 years of culverts put into roads for our benefit that cut off salmon from returning to spawn. And the armoring of shorelines around Puget Sound that is still going on. And of course ignoring a warming climate that could make all these efforts go for naught. All of it nibbling away at the habitat and the fish until there wasn’t enough left. And of course, there was the Boldt Decision, used for propaganda purposes to demonize the very people who have done the most to attempt the restoration. Love them or hate them, they haven’t sat idly by while the fish vanish. They are at the table, working to save them using the best available science today.

Will the efforts to restore runs succeed? We don’t know yet, but some runs on the Elwha are returning, just not yet the chinook in any numbers. As are some runs on Jimmy Come Lately Creek and others. It costs a lot of time, people and money to fix 100 years of destruction.

No one I’ve talked to or read in the last 20 years who is seriously working on this issue, other than Pat Neal, thinks simply making more hatchery fish is some kind of solution. Pat, you have a lot of passion, how about working to help solve the problems rather than ignore the scientists and anglers who have been in the trenches fighting to reverse this ? Your passion might be useful if you are willing to listen and learn.

3 Responses

  1. One of the best things you’ve ever, ever done. Pat’s had it coming for a while. Obviously way over their LTE word limit — I’ll be interested to see how they react. They give Pat an op-ed size space every week, and have for years.

  2. Excellent article with real information. Wish more people read your Environmental News instead of Pat Neal’s columns.

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